When you hear the word "humanism" today, you probably think it’s coming from some secular leftist. But you’d be wrong, or at least, you should be wrong: Orthodox Judaism once had a healthy humanistic vein that Jews would do well to remember. That is the argument put forward by Rabbi Shai Held in a provocative article last month.
Held points out that the leader of the Israeli Knesset’s first religious bloc, the rabbi Moshe Unna, was a powerful proponent of what he called "Jewish humanism." Unna’s basic argument was that the humanistic belief in universal human worth, and one which privileges no faith over any other, is the foundation upon which the Jewish religion was built. What’s more, the religious tradition of Judaism is so rich, so diverse, and in many ways, so contradictory, that it offers no single moral code. Like all faiths, Judaism can be interpreted to mean whatever you want it to.
In a speech Unna gave to Orthodox Zionists in 1945, he concluded: "It is crucial to emphasize the word ‘humanism.’ It is not enough simply to say ‘according to the Torah,’ because from the Torah many different things can be learned. ‘The Torah has 70 faces,’ and one can even learn from it the obligation to commit acts of terrorism … The word ‘humanism,’ therefore, comes to explain and clarify which values from among those values found in our literature we seek to internalize in our educational system."
Those are words you are not likely to hear among today’s Orthodox Jews, and especially religious Zionists. And it’s too bad. The word "humanism" has, sadly, been misconstrued today that speaking it among conservative-minded people of any stripe is likely to invite derision. On the surface, this stems from the fact that humanism is today the rhetorical moral code tossed off by many secular intellectuals. In turn, religious people, whatever their faith, infer that humanism must entail a god-less sanctification of man. Or, put another, they think it implies that man is the center of the universe, not God.
For some secular humanists, this is no doubt true. (I, for one, have no problem with it.) But rabbi Held reminds us that there was once a strong sense of humanism even among the most religious, and Zionist Jews. Religious Zionists like Rabbi Unna could easily see that Judaism in many ways was premised on a kind of humanism, one in which God’s will was made manifest through a universal respect for all mankind. And they could easily understand that Jews might stray from the universal moral teachings of Judaism even if they kept the outward appearance of orthodoxy.
The context of this article is obvious, of course: in Israel, and many parts of the Orthodox Jewish world, an ethnic chauvinism has superseded the universalist code that lies at Judaism’s foundation. It is a moral vision that sees Jewish life as holy, and, when push comes to shove, more worthy of our sympathy and support than another. It is a dangerous mentality, and one that all Jews–including secular ones, who should have just as much respect for Orthodox Jews as they do anybody else–should work hard to overcome.
Sadly, it is still the case that when it comes to Muslim extremism, many Jews ask, Where are the Muslim voices speaking out against them? They’re there. They just choose not to listen. But the question no one seems to ask is this: where are the Jews speaking out against our extremists–and speaking out against them as Jews, that is, speaking from the Jewish tradition? We need to hear them now.